The Point Guard Frustrations of the Timberwolves

The Timberwolves have struggled to find consistent production from their point guard position this year. Part of this is due to injuries, but the biggest culprit has been the wrong players receiving minutes.

The point guard position has always been essential for competitive teams. The role of the point guard has varied by team and tactics, but the position’s importance has remained vital over the years. This year the Timberwolves have struggled to get any consistent production from their point guards. Jeff Teague has battled injuries, struggled to find his rhythm on offense, and been a defensive liability. Derrick Rose’s career has been revived, but he has made more of an impact off the bench, has struggled to be anything but a negative on defense, and has been far too out of control to be the floor general. Tyus Jones continues to make his teammates better by being fundamentally sound, but he has lacked consistency in his shooting and Tom Thibodeau was reluctant to hand over the reins. 

Teague, Rose, and Jones are all skilled point guards, but their fit on the team and the perplexing personnel decisions made by the staff are making the three players ineffective. The Timberwolves need to decide who their point guard is going to be and stick with that decision. So, between Teague, Rose, and Jones, who should be starting at point guard in Minnesota?

Jeff Teague

Teague has been a frustrating player since he signed in Minnesota. His defensive impact is minimal and he just hasn’t been able to find his place on offense. He struggles to decide if he should focus on scoring or setting up his teammates. This decision is often made for him because his hesitation eliminates any openings that may have been presented.

The mental gymnastics that Teague goes through every game with his decision making is obvious. His eagerness to pump fake multiple times in the same possession, even when he's wide open, suggests that he’s lost confidence in his outside shot. His playmaking often leads to far too many dribbles, running down the shot clock, and forcing a pass to a teammate that results in a turnover or heavily guarded shot at the end of the clock. 

Some of these struggles may be attributed to nagging injuries that have kept Teague out of 12 games this year, but his overall play has really struggled. Per Cleaning the Glass, Teague’s effective field goal percentage is down to 42.6 percent (4th percentile among point guards), 46 percent of his shot attempts are coming in the midrange (90th percentile), and he’s averaging just 1.02 points per shot attempt (43rd percentile). It is one thing to go through shooting slumps or have a down year, but this decline in productivity has been self-inflicted. Per NBA Stats, 71 percent of Teague’s shot attempts have come after he’s taken more than three dribbles and 42.4 percent of these are after seven or more dribbles. 43.8 percent of his shots have come after he’s had the ball for at least six seconds and he’s been tightly guarded on 53.1 percent of his shot attempts. 

I know I just threw a lot of numbers at you so what do they mean? They mean that Teague is struggling on what decision to make. He is holding onto the ball too long, which completely kills the offensive flow.

In the below clip we see Teague’s lack of ball movement and his willingness to just give up on the play. The Celtics do a good job of switching on the pick and roll. Al Horford switches onto Teague while Marcus Smart stays with Karl-Anthony Towns after Towns sets a good screen to free up Teague. Instead of attacking the rim or passing the ball after coming off the screen, Teague just stops and settles for a contested mid-range jumper. He misses. There were still 12 seconds left on the clock when Teague decided to shoot. Since nothing immediately developed from the pick and roll, he quit on the play instead of moving the ball or trying to create something else.

Teague’s struggles have also been evident in his hesitation to take open threes. Below we see Andrew Wiggins draw the double team and find Teague for a wide open three. Instead of taking it immediately, he pump fakes and allows Jrue Holliday to recover. Teague then tries to beat him off the dribble, but since Holliday is a very good defender and it is late in the shot clock, Teague is forced to throw up an off-balanced floater that Holliday happily blocks. 

Just a minute later in the same game we see an almost identical scenario. Teague finds himself wide open at the top of the arc with the shot clock winding down. As Teague receives the ball, we see him hesitate on if he is going to shoot or make the extra pass to Robert Covington. The defender doesn't truly commit to either Teague or Covington, but Teague’s hesitation allows the defender to close out and contest the shot. 

These are the decisions that must be made before getting the ball. Consistently being unsure of what to do is a clear lack of situational awareness. Even making the wrong decision without hesitation can be better than hesitating and having the options taken away. 

The On/Off Court numbers also don’t favor Teague. When Teague is on the floor the team’s defensive rating is 111.6, their turnover percentage is 14.6, and opponents score 12 points off turnovers. When Teague exits the floor, all these numbers drastically improve. The Timberwolves defensive rating drops to 105.7, their turnover percentage falls to 11.8, and opponents score only 7.6 points off turnovers.

This isn’t meant as a Jeff Teague bashing but instead a way to shed light on the fit not being right with this team. Teague is a point guard who needs the ball in his hands a lot. He is at his best when he is getting into the lane and creating for his teammates or finishing with creative floaters. This year though he is settling for far too many mid-range jumpers and seems scared to shoot open threes. I think Teague still has a lot of good basketball left in him and that he can help a team; that team just isn’t the Timberwolves anymore. 

Derrick Rose

This year has been a complete revival for Rose’s career. He is averaging 18.9 points, 4.8 assists, and shooting a career-high 47.4 percent from three (97th percentile among guards per Cleaning the Glass). His quickness and creativity around the rim have returned, leading to him being a valuable weapon off the bench. Despite the massive contribution from Rose this year, he has been bad as the starting point guard. When Rose plays with the other four starters, the Timberwolves have an offensive rating of 104.8, a defensive rating of 119.6, and an effective field goal percentage of 50. In other terms, they suck.

If Rose has been productive this year, then where do the issues come from when he is in with the starters? Defensively, Rose is still one of the worst point guards in the league. When he is with the starters, he is forced to guard the other team's primary ball handler who then has no issue driving straight past him or beating him on a backdoor cut. In the below clip we see Trae Young drive right past Rose for an easy layup. Young doesn’t use any complicated moves, he just dribbles past Rose with minimal effort.

Offensively, Rose just doesn’t fit well with the Timberwolves' offensively talented starters. His high usage rate makes sense with the second unit where he can either attack the rim in a drive-and-kick role or take advantage of open looks created by the other guard. When he is on the floor with either Teague or Jones, the team has a positive net rating. This is because the team doesn't rely on Rose to create offense in these situations. The other guard can take control of the offense and slow it down when needed or put the ball in Rose’s hands and let him attack. In the below clip we see how Rose benefits when he is playing the two guard. Teague’s drive to the rim collapses the defense on him. He kicks it out to Rose who knocks down a wide open three. This year, Rose is shooting 45.6 percent on catch and shoot threes.

The positive impact of Rose this year has been obvious. He is a really good second guard coming off the bench, but the days of him as the starting point guard are long gone.

Tyus Jones

Jones has done nothing but improve over the course of his career. He won’t light up the stat sheet, but he will do all of the little things in order to help his team win. When Jones plays with the starters, the Timberwolves have one of the best net ratings among five-man lineups in the league at plus-15.5. Their offensive rating jumps to 116.8 while their defensive rating drops to 101.2. The team just runs more efficiently when Jones is on the floor.

The offensive impact of Jones isn’t as obvious as his defensive impact, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t improve their offense. Jones doesn’t need the ball in his hands like so many point guards do; he is more than willing to put the ball in the hands of Karl-Anthony Towns or Andrew Wiggins and let them work. This is important because those are Minnesota's two best players and it is important to get them involved early and often. The offense is also much more controlled when Jones is on the court. The Timberwolves turn the ball over just 4.9 times per game with him on the court compared to 8.3 when he is off the court. Jones’s accurate passing and improved ball handling has led to him having the league's best assist to turnover ratio of 6.26. 

The below clip is a great example of Jones’s improved passing. He runs a double pick with Dario Saric and Gorgui Dieng as the screeners. As Jones comes through the screens, Dieng’s man switches onto Jones while Saric’s man tags Dieng as he slips to the rim. Jones recognizes that Dieng is just being tagged and not switched onto. Instead of passing to Saric, who is briefly open, Jones waits an extra second for Saric’s man to recover and delivers a perfect bounce pass to a wide-open Dieng.

On the other hand, Jones has struggled to score this year. His three-point shot has struggled as he’s gone through a few slumps. His 29 percent from three is in just the 12th percentile among guards, per Cleaning the Glass. The 11 percent of his shots which come from the corner-three area ranks in the 95th percentile, so if he can improve upon his 29 percent from that area of the floor, his game could take a big jump forward. To make up for his poor outside shooting, he has improved on getting into the lane and scoring in the short-mid range. In this area, he is shooting 47 percent which ranks in the 81st percentile. Below we see how Jones uses his patience, footwork, and soft touch to finish with a floater. Jones dribbles tight on the pick from Towns, which frees up some space. He then hesitates to see if Towns’s man will switch onto him. When he doesn’t switch, Jones then knows he can attack the paint. Jones utilizes a hop step to avoid the reach in from Jaylen Brown and a quick look to Towns that freezes Towns’s defender. The combination of these moves creates enough space for Jones to score on an easy floater.

Jones has improved offensively, but his biggest impact comes on the defensive end of the floor. He is a much better defender than either Teague or Rose and can be a real nuisance for other teams to deal with. Jones has the best defensive rating on the team at 103.2. Per Cleaning the Glass, he has a steal percentage of 2.6 (95th percentile) and only commits a foul 2 percent of the time (95th percentile). He does a good job of denying the ball, creating turnovers, and communicating on switches and rotations. 

The below clip shows the effort and intuition that Jones brings to the defensive end. At the top of the screen, the Heat try to run Jones through two picks and then pick him after the handoff. Jones is able to avoid all three of these picks and stay right on Tyler Johnson’s hip. Since Towns is playing tight defense as well, they are able to double-team Johnson once he gets the ball. This is a pretty common play that offenses run and if the defense does double team, the roll man is usually open. Jones eliminates this option because he keeps his hands up the whole time and is able to deflect the pass and steal the ball.

The Timberwolves are also a much better transition defense team with Jones. When he is on the floor, they allow just 6.2 fast break points as opposed to the 8.7 allowed when he is off the court. The below clip is a great example of the impact he has. This should be an easy basket for the Celtics, but Jones reads it perfectly. Jones notices that Jayson Tatum never takes his eyes off Terry Rozier. Instead of retreating to the rim, Jones realizes that Tatum is going to give the ball right back to Rozier. Jones jumps the passing lane for a steal. 

Jones is the best guard defender on the team. He creates havoc for opponents and is always where he needs to be. His offensive game compliments the rest of the starters perfectly. He is always looking to create for them first and score second. His outside shot needs to improve to take his game up a level, but his touch around the rim has added a new layer to his game.

So where do the Timberwolves go from here? Rose should play as little point guard as possible, not because he’s a bad player but because his game is much more suited as a two guard now. Now that Teague has returned from injury, and looked the best he has all season, he will continue to get the starting minutes while Jones will continue to come off the bench. I would prefer to see these roles reversed but based on the names, contracts, and experience, this likely won’t happen. Jones is a perfect complement to the starters while Teague could take the second group up a level and help ensure little to no drop off in production when the starters leave the floor. Regardless of what the coaching staff decides to do, the Timberwolves need to get some consistent, positive production from their starting point guard position.

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